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Man charged with stealing Inland Empire fire hydrants, presumably to sell as scrap metal

April 23, 2010 | 11:30 am

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Mike Hurst was driving down the street in San Bernardino County earlier this month when he saw a man dressed in an orange vest walking away from a fire hydrant.

Hurst, an 11-year veteran of the West Valley Water District, lost track of the man as he left in what looked like a white utility truck. But Hurst, 34, had taken the first meaningful step in solving the case of the missing fire hydrants in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

On Tuesday, Hurst was driving on Riverside Avenue in Rialto when he again saw the truck. This time, he decided to conduct a stakeout, following the man to the parking lot of gas station, and then to a house in Rubidoux, west of Riverside.

Hurst called a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s scrap metal theft investigator. The next morning, deputies arrested Brian Burian and charged him with allegedly making off with 45 fire hydrants in a broad area of the Inland Empire.

Investigators said Burian, 45, allegedly used a five-to six-foot-long “valve key” to shut off the water, removed the bolts holding the 80- to 100-pound hydrants down and hauled them away -- all in broad daylight. 

The theft of metal to sell as scrap -- such as copper wiring, bronze fixtures and iron from construction sites -- is common, especially during a prolonged economic slump.

But water district and law enforcement officials say stealing hydrants is decidedly off the beaten path. When hydrants are lost, it’s usually because a car plowed into one. It will cost up to $1,800 to replace each of them, some of which had to be special ordered because water districts don’t usually see a need to keep a stockpile of them.

Eldon Horst, general manager of the Jurupa Community Service District, which had 16 hydrants stolen, said no mere hack could pull it off. “This person had some skills,” Horst said Friday. “It’s too bad he was not able to apply them in an effective way for himself, his family or whoever he was close to.”

Burian allegedly dismantled the hydrants and took the parts to scrap metal yards, including one in Colton, where Hurst said they found buckets with 287 pounds of scrapped hydrants -- worth about $500. But the thefts took place over at least three months.

Scrap yards can be charged with a felony for buying fire hydrant parts. In 2008, a state law was passed making it a felony for scrap yards to buy stolen scrap metal. In this case, the hydrants were cut into relatively small pieces, making them harder to identify.

--Hector Becerra

Photo: Dave Reading, a foreman for the Jurupa Community Services District, flushes a newly installed fire hydrant in Riverside's Sunnyslope neighborhood.

Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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